Cool Weather Cooking
We don’t get a lot of cool weather in New Orleans, let alone truly cold temperatures, so when the nights start to fall into the 50s, I begin to think about hearty stews, soups and the sort of food that seems out of place here most of the year.
Some techniques seem to lend themselves to heartier fare; that’s not to say you can’t make a light, delicate braised dish; it’s just that when I think about braising, I tend to think about rich, slow-cooked stews of beef, lamb or pork and chicken smothered in onions, peppers and garlic.
One advantage to braising meat and poultry is that frequently by the time your target protein has cooked, you’ve also got at least the beginning of a sauce. Often I’ll start a dish by browning meat in my dutch oven, then remove it and add rough-cut vegetables and seasonings to cook in the leftover fat. Once they’ve softened a bit, I deglaze with a flavorful liquid like wine, port, sherry or beer before adding broth or stock and returning the meat to the pot to cook for an hour or three. After that length of time, the vegetables have pretty well disintegrated, so if you have a food mill or a stick blender you can simply puree them in the liquid remaining in the pot for a quick sauce.
It’s even easier to make a full meal this way if you add tomatoes after deglazing in place of some of the stock or broth. When I do that, I cut down a bit on the vegetables, but otherwise follow the same method, including a pass through the food mill or a minute or three with the stick blender. The result is a full-bodied tomato sauce that has the flavors of the meat. You can cook some pasta and simply transfer it to the sauce, then serve the meat on the side. A green vegetable or a quick salad is all you need for a satisfying meal.
Less often, I’ll go a bit more adventurous, such as a dinner I cooked not long ago where I braised roulades of thinly sliced beef stuffed with herbs, goat cheese and bread crumbs in a tomato sauce I made separately.
I used beef because I saw some “minute steaks” on sale, and figured that if I overlapped two of them and perhaps pounded them out a bit, I could fit a good three to four tablespoons of stuffing in the middle. The trick is keeping them sealed; you can do that by securing them with toothpicks, trussing them with butcher’s twine or by leaving enough room at the long ends of the meat to fold them over and let the meat adhere to itself.
To do that, place two thinly-sliced cuts of meat onto a large piece of plastic wrap, overlapping in the middle by at least a half-inch. Pound them a bit (I just use my hand most of the time) where they overlap, then put a few tablespoons of stuffing about an inch from one of the long sides, stopping about a half-inch from each end. Start rolling at the end closest to the stuffing, and tuck the meat in about 2/3 of the way through. Then tuck the short ends into the roll before finishing.
It’s a good idea to then roll the whole thing up in plastic wrap and let it chill for a half hour or so, but regardless, you can then either simply place them seam-side down in a baking dish or very carefully brown them in a heavy pot. You finish the dish by adding the braising liquid – in my case some tomato sauce – and either cooking it on the stovetop or in a low oven (325 degrees) for an hour or so. The sauce should come almost to the top of the meat; some liquid will be released during cooking. It is not the most tender meat you’ll ever taste, but the sauce and the stuffing keep each bite pretty juicy. You do need a very sharp knife to slice the rolls into little medallions, but if you don’t have a sharp knife I’m not sure what I can do for you.
I’ve done this dish with a pork tenderloin that I butterflied and pounded thin, with chicken breasts and a de-boned lamb breast that, unfortunately, I cooked into near inedibility. That particular attempt wasn’t my best work, but for the most part it’s an easy way to put something tasty and attractive on the plate, and generally a hit at dinner parties or potlucks.
What do you cook during the small window of cool weather we have here?